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The Heath brothers – those prolific scientist-authors whose handy acronyms help us live better – are at it again. Their latest book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, helps us synthesize and apply years of robust research on improving our decision-making.

As always for the Heath brothers, an acronym focuses their teaching on how to make better decisions: “WRAP”

  1. WIDEN your options. Investigate the full range of choices available to you. Do not simply accept the frame of the problem as it first appears to you. Re-frame it. Ask others who have faced the same or similar choices. Ask experts in the field too. Read and research the problem. Above all, do not hurry your decision. Time will allow both conscious and subconscious cogitation to lead you to additional options, likely making your choices more comprehensive and beneficial.
  2. REALITY-TEST your assumptions. Do not merely seek to confirm what you already know (or assume you know). Rather, you should attempt to falsify what you know. Look for contrary evidence. Again, ask for outside opinions of experts, taking special note of those who disagree with your initial leanings or those who advise you to ask further questions. Listen to them. Be wary of anyone who simply confirms the direction in which you may already lean. These steps will help you avoid the self-serving and confirmation biases. http://lawyerthinks.com/2012/02/15/i-know-im-right-i-must-be-right-i-cant-be-wrong/.
  3. ATTAIN distance before deciding. Again, take your to time to allow short-term emotions and thinking to subside. Wait, in other words, to make your decision. It is a physiological fact that your vision and thinking narrow when the stress and immediacy of a problem confront you. This is true no matter how cool under pressure you think you may be; this is your anatomy responding to millions of years of evolutionary training. Walk away, sleep on it, and – most importantly – write out your long-term goals and values to ensure that you take them into account. See more on waiting to make decisions. http://lawyerthinks.com/2012/11/10/slow-down-waiting-works-better-for-decisions/.
  4. PREPARE to be wrong. Accept your fallibility in advance to help you see future obstacles and pitfalls. Be ready for bad outcomes. Be humble. Be careful not to over-identify with the decision. We all must make ambiguous choices based on incomplete information. We will get it wrong – a lot. Remember our fallibility. Only then can we hope to lessen the cognitive dissonance that prevents us from recovering and learning from our mistakes.

These four steps might also enhance conventional legal thinking and the problems we lawyers face in day-to-day practice. How might “WRAP for Lawyers” help?

  1. WIDEN your options: Don’t simply accept the way you’ve framed similar legal problems in the past, or the way the law has treated past similar cases. Treat the legal choice facing you and your client as novel. See it with a beginner’s mind, a mind open to questions about the nature of the problem itself. This does not mean you disregard the settled law on the issue, but rather that you consider non-legal options too. How to do this? Ask a non-lawyer how she might frame the issue. Ask an intelligent 12 year-old what he thinks. Seek the opinion of a colleague unfamiliar with the specific area of law. In other words, don’t rely solely on your own conception of the problem.
  2. REALITY-TEST your assumptions. Whatever you initially think about both the problem and the solution, you should doubt. You should, in fact, scrutinize the basic assumptions guiding your approach to the problem. Again, this does not countenance disregard for law, or respect for settled legal procedures. It urges instead that you compliment the standard lawyerly approach to decisions with questions for non-legal experts. Ask experts and those experienced with similar problems outside the legal system. Moreover, seek an opinion that disagrees with your or your client’s approach and suggested solution. This is formidable  for us lawyers, trained as we are in the art of advocacy (otherwise known as the “art of confirming our biases through selective evidence”). Put your biases on trial for their life! Ask someone who doesn’t share your view on the problem. Ask someone to point out the weakness of your positions. Don’t argue with them. Listen carefully, actively to them. Even pick up the mantle of their contrary arguments, helping them make the best case against you. Only then do you understand your legal choice.
  3. ATTAIN distance before deciding. Wait as long as you practically can to make legal decisions, unless you truly face that rare thing called a “legal emergency.” For more on the benefits of waiting to make decisions, see  http://lawyerthinks.com/2012/11/10/slow-down-waiting-works-better-for-decisions/. What’s more, the legal system moves slowly for many reasons, some of them less than felicitous. But one reason for the seemingly snail-like momentum of many legal outcomes remains fruitful: we tend to get it right when we slow it down, let the emotional dust settle, and consider our solutions with more objectivity, dispassion. But we will still be wrong much of the time, which brings us to . . .
  4. PREPARE to be wrong. Focus here on “prepare.” Indeed, as we say above, invite dissent and forecast the consequences of wrong choices as early as possible in your thinking. Not only will this “pre-mortem” analysis help you widen your frame of reference for the legal problem and develop solutions, it should also help remind you (and your client) of an inescapable reality: unpredictability and uncertainty endure as features of legal life, despite our best efforts to counter them.

But we can counter our automatic, habitual decision-making tendencies by employing the Heath’s “WRAP” procedure. In a metaphor the Heath brothers would surely endorse, let us “wrap” our legal minds around their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.  Let us make better decisions in law and life.

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